On Crawfish Boils and Communion

Allow me to boil it down, the truth about reverse carpet-baggers.

Becky is an upright Catholic from South Louisiana, Baton Rouge to be exact, somewhere ’round about Ridgley Road to be even more exact. She’s a reverse carpet bagger of sorts, one who followed a fine gentlemen into the heart of the Ozark Mountains. If you are looking for the good news about reverse carpet baggers, it boils down to this: they carry their belongings in oversized stockpots. If there’s one thing folks from South Louisiana know, it’s how to cook, how to stew, steam, and boil.

I met Becky and her husband, Jim, in the months after Titus was born. She was friends with Amber, and had volunteered to bring us a post-birth meal. She came, several children in tow and carrying a large Tupperware full of homemade Gumbo. Specific in her preparation directions, she said, “don’t use Tobasco; this stuff isn’t made to taste vinegary. If you have a good Cajun seasoning, use that instead.”

There ain’t nothing that beats a Type A Cajun.

“There are boiled eggs in it,” she said, and seeing the puzzled look on my face, added, “I grew up Catholic and on fast days, the egg was our protein.”

At the time, she said, they were doing a stint away from Catholicism, had hunkered down among some good folks at local Presbyterian joint. I smiled, nodded. Truth is, we were all trying on our more reformed theological jeans in those days, in the days before finding them a bit too snug in the rear. This of course, is only a side note, and perhaps one that doesn’t beg to be said. Truth be told, though, I often boil folks down to two things: theology and cuisine.

In any event, back to boiling things down.

It’s the tail-end of May, which is to say it is the tail-end of crawfish season in South Louisiana. For those of you who might happen to be of the more Yankee or Mid-Western variety, let me share a secret with you: there is not a single upright southern Louisianan who does not, come hell or high water, figure out a way to boil crawfish when they’re in season. I half-suspect that the Cajun humanitarian workers in the outer reaches of the African bush have sorted out a way to procure fresh crawfish in season; this, or they fly home at least once a year.

I digress.

Last week, Jim sent me note, asked whether I’d be interested in swinging the family by on Saturday for a crawfish boil. My heart response was, “does a Cajun eat nutria?” but I kept it above board, replied instead, “sure.” And with that, we made our way to the Carters on Saturday afternoon.

If’n God ever did make a more perfect little boy cuisine, I don’t suppose I know what it is. In the Carter’s backyard there was a large red tub full of live crawfish swimming in saltwater. The boys gathered around the tub, picked up the lethargic crawfish, put their fingers between the pincers and laughed at the crawfishes’ weak attempts to pinch themselves free. They held the mudbugs in the air like prized lobsters, tried to find the ones with the biggest claws. They ran around the yard, holding them to our faces.

“Look at this one; he has one big pincer and one small!” Ike said. Titus stood behind him, wondering at his brave big brother who was holding the alien creature. “Wook, dadda; wook!” he said.

Of course, the day of reckoning comes to all living things, and after asking the boys to return the crawfish to the tub, Jim picked the tub up by the handles and dumped the hoard of creatures into an oversized stockpot of boiling water. A little salt, a little pepper, a healthy dose of cayenne, and some cut lemons were added, along with potatoes, onions, corn, mushrooms, and sausage.

Double, double, toil and trouble–the boiling pot roiled.

A tender woman asked Jim whether the crawfish felt any pain. “Nah,” he said. “It’s like a warm bath to them.”

“Yeah,” I said, “like a warm bath to death.” I don’t suppose this is the way I want to go out, which is another reason I thank the good Lord purposed my life for humanity and not crawfishery.

This, of course, brings us to the finer points of the boil–the eating. After the crawfish blush red, they are removed from the boil and spilled across plastic tables. I turned to Ike, asked him whether he remember how to peel a crawfish. With out a word, and with a smile as wide as an alligator, he twisted the tail from the thorax, sucked the head, pitched the thorax in the trash, removed the exoskeleton from the first knuckle of the tail, pinched the back end of the tail, squeezed out the tail, and tossed it back. He looked up at me, blue eyes beaming, and said, “just like that!” before grabbing another.

Jim and I stood, shoulder to shoulder, working our way through several pounds as Becky worked the table across from us, coaching a fine Arkie-talian fellow (an Arkansan of Italian descent) on the finer points of crawfish eating. “Some of the bigger claws have salvageable meat,” she said, demonstrating how to suck every usable bit from the mudbug.

We stood there under the shade of a giant American sycamore, all salvaging, all sucking spicy crawfish juices down to the dregs. We talked life, politics (though not to any serious measure), and religion. We talked rosaries and trim-carpentry. We talked beer and sobriety. We shared the table while the children ran through the yard, pitched crawfish thoraxes at each other and chugged Sprite. Perhaps it wasn’t Eucharist, but it was communion nonetheless.

Yes, everyone needs a good reverse carpet-bagging friend, I think. And the truth of good reverse carpet-baggers, especially those from ’round about Baton Rouge, boils down to this: they are creators of good life; they are curators of communion.

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: , , , , ,
  • Caroline Starr Rose

    This pretty much killed me. Heading to south Louisiana in a few weeks, and all I can say is bring on the boil!

    • sethhaines

      BRING ON THE BOIL! And make sure to report back. 🙂

  • You know you’re killing my tender vegetarian-heart with this post. But I made it all the way through and you’re still a great writer. Just thanking God I live in the PNW where crawdads roam free and uneaten. At least in my creek. 😉

    • sethhaines

      Oops… sorry, T. I’d love to think I could go vegetarian, but then again, CRAWFISH SEASON!

      • Ha! I’m actually only a complete veg in my heart. But I do feel guilty on the rare occasions I eat animals. Which sounds like a joke, but is true. 🙂 I’d share a crawfish with the Haines. And then go cry for awhile.

  • Becky

    Confession (since I am the good Catholic girl) – I had to ask what a carpet bagger was! Fun post… And we would gather round a table of food and friends and the Haines anytime. It’s our happy place.

    • sethhaines

      Happy place for sure.

  • Carter

    I like how you capitalized “G”umbo; you’ll make a wonderful Catholic 🙂

    • sethhaines

      Well… I didn’t even notice that. I reckon I can’t go back and change it now! 🙂

  • pastordt

    Had these in New Orleans several years ago – and was amazed at how much I loved ’em! Not sure I’d pass the test you gave Isaac, but then I’m a CA girl. :>)